Savoring Sipalay

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I rejoice every moment of peace in marine world!

Spontaneity… It sounds exciting to me especially if it is about travel and my last dive trip in April was one. Although my mind was set to revisit Pandan in Antique province to conquer the ever elusive Maningning Island, we succumbed to Sipalay City as alternative destination. Our DM was not available and the weather was unstable.  It was another long trip as it was necessary not to waste my ticket to Iloilo City from Cagayan de Oro. Took the early ferry to Bacolod, endure the long bus ride to the southern most town of Negros Occidental, until finally we had the tricycle ride to Punta Ballo at our refuge in Artistic Diving Beach Resort. The long day was filled with good tidings though, the morning rainbow while in Iloilo pier and the afternoon rainbow at the white beach were enough to cheer us up and took it as a promise of wonderful trip just like in the past.

Punta Ballo

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Somewhere over the rainbow!

Taking refuge in a dive resort while diving is always advantageous, there is no rushing to commute going to the site and there’s no need to carry heavy wet gears back to camp.  Artistic Diving Beach Resort sat along the west coast with an idyllic white beach, so the sunset always beckon at the end of the day. It has at least 14 dive sites including wrecks, and is just nearby Campomanes Bay. After eight months we were back, there was much to explore and we barely covered this unassuming city in our last visit.

Dive and Swim

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Punta Ballo is full of dive sites

After attending the Sunday mass at the city center and taking light breakfast, we gathered up our gears and met up with DM Dick at the shop.  And again, it was an exclusive dive for us! We aimed for MS Jojo for our first descent, it was a short twenty minutes boat ride to the bay. This boat was a small cargo ship for copra and other produce that sank in early 1980’s, they said exploring the wreck is somewhat tricky. It can be murky down there even during sunny weather, and so we were hoping that we could get at least a glimpse of the wreck. We back rolled and hold on to the buoy line together descending slowly until at 20 meters we saw obscurely a huge mass. We were very fortunate that visibility cooperated us and we tried not to disturb the water hovering carefully trying to cover as much as we can. Perhaps I was so distracted, I only saw a lionfish but never the spadefish that normally dwells on wrecks.  We lighted our torches but there wasn’t much to see, penetration was not allowed inside the wreck, the entire hull was still intact. We were biding our time until my NDL went down to 1! I signaled for ascent feeling sorry that it was too short and was just indeed a sneak peek underwater.  Later, I learned from my computer of my bad profile, I still had 90 bars of air with my deepest at 32 meters after a bottom time of 36 minutes.

After an hour for our surface interval, we geared up again for our next descent at Miami Beach which was a lot nearer from the diveshop, it was another boat dive. We descend the slope while maintaining our left shoulder towards the reef. We caught sight of an artificial reef of concrete slabs filed on top of the other.  Indeed, it became a shelter and refuge of variety of reef fishes, we saw like two or three mounds of slabs all filled with fish.  There were glass shrimp, violet hairy shrimp lurking in soft corals and juvenile lion

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fish. There was a field of corals decorated with wiggling fishes, floating around wandering the waters. I sighted a COTS taking refuge under the corals. Just when we are about to ascend, we noticed a large lobster with its wiggling antlers.  I still have 100 bars air with bottom time of 56 minutes with 26.9 meters as deepest.

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Artificial reef became a rich shelter of marine life in Miami Beach

Trek, Swim and Sunset

We ended our dives early enough to explore more of the city which were missed in our last trip. One good thing about Sipalay is its remaining idyllic and still devoid of distracting structures that seemingly hide the natural beauty of locality.

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Overlooking the horizon from Perth Paradise

We hired the trike we had in the morning when we went to church, for our afternoon get-away.  Somehow, the locals always knew what to see, where to go next and what not’s.  Our first stop was at Perth Paradise Resort, we went around the floating catwalk wondering those hills on the waters like fjords. We climbed the steps up the topmost level at the pool admiring the stunning view.  The afternoon was scorching so we didn’t linger on but instead left hurriedly and sped off to Tinagong Dagat which was indeed hidden. It was all trek from the gates, crossing the rickety hanging bridge and climbing up the hill to the viewing deck.  The view was stunning again, the green mountains over the blue waters – it was all glorious!

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Watching Tinagong Dinagat from the hilltop view deck

There’s one remote beach that tickled my curiosity since I first came in Sipalay but unfortunately left hanging for next visit.  I was imagining the reddish horizon over the waters as the sun sets.  Unbeknownst to us, going to Sugar Beach was not an easy one. The dirt road was potholed so the ride was a bumpy one as we sped off to catch the colorful sunset and finally hopped to a short boat ride crossing the river to reach the area.

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The colorful beauty from Sugar Beach, how magnificent!

And indeed, everything was crude – place was utterly untouched by modernization. We were able to explore a bit as we waited for the sunset, and swam enjoying the warm afternoon waters. Purely idyllic, almost devoid of people and there was no rushing as we watched the horizons turning from golden, to fiery reddish, orange until it mellowed to pinkish.  Such wonderful display of nature.  It was already dark as we rushed back to the city center and finally, to the dive resort.

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You can never miss the sunsets of Punta Ballo while in Artistic Dive Resort!

If given a chance to be back south of Negros Occidental, it would be Sipalay, the rural and picturesque attractions coupled with diverse marine life is a perfect combination.  It could only take a rich underwater world for me to love a city or a “punta” for that matter!

A Decade of Wonders and Wanders

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“The sea, once it cast its spell, holds one in the net of wonder forever.”
~Jacques Yves Cousteau~

Last year was an important milestone being in my tenth year of this intoxication, apparently, the lure of the marine world has never waned and after such time still the intoxication is very much alive. The allure is clearly stronger than ever.  And again, it always felt beautiful lifting me occasionally out of the realms of everyday into something otherworldly, getting into nature in the raw, somehow gaining a deeper sense of my own humanity in the process.  It is humbling and felt privileged to have explored in part the mysterious yet interesting marine world. This enriching experience had maintained my equilibrium.

Ten years wasn’t very long but the journey is long enough to realize that life isn’t what should be as planned by the Creator without experiencing the underwater realm. The planet is composed more than 70% water, unmistakably it must be understood deeply so that all forms of life shall survive. Getting into the water is the only means we humans will understand how fragile and important is our oceans for our subsistence.

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Just as it is, my dive trips were taken slow but persistently – one dive at a time so they say, learning from every descent and felt so blessed I sustained this madness. Last year, just in time for that anniversary I logged in my 200th dive! Although, exclusive in this country I have no regrets, being in the tropics I can dive whole year round without worrying about cold waters. And all these sites are slices of paradise without doubt, each of them have its own attractions and what a joy! Together with my buddy we searched the far corners around the islands, to our surprise there are lot of unknown sites in diving map that are at par with touristy ones if not more rich and astoundingly unspoiled – Bongao, Cortes, Maasim are just few of towns in Mindanao or Anini-y, Siquijor, Pandan in the Visayas – that have their own sanctuaries and have endeavoured marine protection awareness in their local communities. Or even watching the majestic Mt. Mayon over the horizon as you surface from a dive. And yes, always yearning to be back in this marine world heritage site in Sulu seas – the Tubbataha Reefs!

P1060799Diving, like any other sports requires good health and lean physique necessary enough if not to be agile for the rigors of dive trips. In other words I need to be conscious about choosing wellness which is more than about eating.  I just thought lugging extra pounds in my body is not what it take to be a scuba diver, being heavy is a no-no  for aquatic pursuits and that needs no explanation.  That’s victory for me in a way, I’m still using until now my dive gears I acquired after I got certified – after ten years it’s almost tattered but it’s more than proof that its purpose was maximized. It’s more than just economics, it’s an evidence of healthy lifestyle!  🙂

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Silence is something that has almost ceased to exist in this world, and diving become my escape, that deserted place where I could be silent and momentarily be in a different biosphere. You get down unto the depths and it’s absolutely quiet there apart from my own breathing, there is complete silence. Undoubtedly, the spirituality benefits of diving got me to the core, like that holistic consciousness of my existence, very few activities that could match this dimension. I admit and I mentioned this over and over again that diving has become my de-stressor after these years. I believe the Lord has led me to the restful waters that refreshes my soul.  The blue world has been and always be my inspiration in this journey. And I know I shall dwell in this perfect contentment for years to come!

Balingoan: Underwater Paradise

By Angel C. Juarez
A Post written in Health & Home, August 2016 issue

In my continuous chase for offbeat dive sites in the country, I got a chance to explore the underwater treasures in Balingoan, Misamis Oriental. Heading to Barangay Mantangale with my perennial dive buddy Ate Claudia from Cagayan de Oro City one day I was enthralled with the unspoiled beauty under the waters of this laid back municipality.  Indeed, the place is one of the most underrated dive spots in the country.  While most tourists frequent Balingoan only as a jump-off point to Camiguin Island, for some like us, it is already a destination.  It is a small piece of underwater paradise that will definitely keep us coming back again and again.

Finding Balingoan

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Mantangale and Sipaka as seen from Balingoan Port

Balingoan is two hours north of Cagayan de Oro City, unknown to many, the waters around this small town that stretch toward Camiguin bustle with vivid underwater life.  Without a doubt, Balingoan is one of my favorite place in the Philippines for scuba diving for two reasons: its rich marine life and the absence of tourist traffic that  popular dive sites get.  This means Balingoan is generally unspoiled and unexploited!

Sipaka Point

One of Balingoan’s known diving spots is Sipaka Point.  Its sloping white and sandy bed is an ideal site for students and divers of all levels.  It is a perfect site for macro photography as well.  Ten meters down Sipaka Point is beautiful reef adorned with colorful corals and crinoids, and home to small tropical fishes and marine creatures.  Fishes like anthias, wrasses, angelfish, pufferfish, anemonefish, lionfish, groupers, and eels abound in the reef.  So do lobsters, cuttlefish, glass and harlequin shrimps, and different species of nudibranches.

Talisayan Shoal

Not far from Sipaka Point is Talisayan Shoal, a ten minute boat ride from the coast of Mantangale and a known spot for the colorful mandarin fish.  It was already sunset when we descended down into the vast coral area of Talisayan Shoal. Armed with underwater torches, we maneuvered around the area on search for the rare mandarin fish.  We saw the usual tropical reef fishes and other macro species such as shrimps and crabs, but not the rare mandarin fish.  When my torch ran out of battery, we ascend for our safety stop.  Darkness had already enveloped the surroundings as we sailed back to the shores.  When I look into the water, I saw glowing bioluminous organisms as they were washed away by the boat.  Indeed, the sea is a vast mystery and humans will never completely understand the life beneath.

Banaug Shoal

Three years after our first dive affair with Balingoan. We returned to its depths to experience and explore more of its treasures.  It was Banaug Shoal this time.  It wasn’t my first time to dive here but I was excited as it were my first.  We left for Banaug Shoal by speed boat.  This shoal is the house reef of Mantangale Alibuag Dive Resort (MADRI), which for me is one of the best house reefs I have ever dived into.  The diversity of marine life in this dense space is unbelievable and the explosion of underwater colors never ceases to amaze me.  Snappers, butterflyfish, moorish idols, boxfish, trumpet fish, leaf fish, trigger fish and a lot more species graced our dives as well as sea slugs and other macro species.  They all made the small reef, carpeted with soft and hard corals, their home.

Lapinig Island

After our surface interval, we sailed from Mantangale to Lapinig Island, the islet in front of Balingoan Port.  It looks dull and boring on the surface, but what’s underwater is a different story.  It’s an action- packed world down there!  Not minding the mild current, we gradually descend on a sandy slope hoping to see manta rays.  There are reported sightings of manta rays in the site although not regular.  It wasn’t our lucky day though, as no manta ray showed up.  But the usual reef and macro species such as striped fish, trumpet fish, nudis, bristle worms, and others that I don’t know by name, made the dive an awesome one.  Soft and hard corals, sea fans, feather stars and sponges also added color to the scenery.  Sadly, some trashes scattered around the place due to its proximity to the port and residential area.  We ended up fishing out trashes, turning our dive into a clean-up drive!

Looking forward to coming Back

My Balingoan dives are truly memorable and I look forward to more underwater explorations and discoveries in the town.  The sea is a deep stash of treasures and surprises that I won’t get tired of exploring.  I can’t wait for another rendezvous with underwater creatures of Balingoan in the years to come.

Disclosures:
Angel C. Juarez of http://www.lakwatsero.com has been my dive buddy since few years back. I met him nine years ago during a Coron trip, four months later he became a certified diver. We have a lot of common favorite dive destinations and Mantangale is just one of them. Our last dive in the area was just this February 2017.

Glass Shrimp

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They are almost translucent, keen eyes are necessary to find them!

Also known as Crustaceans, Carid Shrimps, Commensal Shrimps,Bubble Anemone Shrimp, Philippine Shrimp and Anemone Shrimp.

This transparent critter can be found only on bubble coral, its glass-like body has purple antennae and purple line down body.  They feed on parasites, algae and plankton.
Often if a divers hand is near to a cleaner shrimps, they will hop on board and perform a manicure!

Carid shrimps occur worldwide in almost every habitat, from sea water to fresh water and can be found all over the reef.  They are generally respected by other creatures, often sharing  burrows and holes and working as housekeepers.  They will wave their antennae around to attract customers, they then proceed to clean outside and inside the creatures mouths, gills and more!

Indeed, one needs keen eyes to spot them!  🙂

The Opulent Olango Island

Simple yet too rich and beautiful, it is true that beauty is more than what is visible!

 In October, we decided for a quick trip to Olango Island, if you fly over Cebu you can’t miss this mass of land widely surrounded with sea flats and reefs.  Reef, that is obviously home for diverse marine life.  Actually, the island is quietly known as migratory path of birds, there is season for these species covering the wide flats of the island!  Apparently, our purpose to cruise for the island was for its depths more than the birds. It was a quick getaway and we lack sufficient time to linger for the southern part of the island.

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Floating with this scenery above me was all consuming!

The week has been overcast and wasn’t sunny enough, and for that weekend cruising to the island was not easy. Fortunately, our dive operator was kind enough to fetch us from Mactan port. But the big waves keep tossing the boat and getting on the vessel was more than tricky and challenging. I made it though, waited for exact timing and managed quick steps over the gangplank and run for the inner chamber of the vessel. Well, a diver should be fit enough to bring oneself on the boat, come high waves or gusty winds!

Surprises in the Depths

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This wide seafan is home to many critters

Surprisingly, the waterfront of the island was calm and its water suitable for the dives, there were dive boats anchored as we passed along for Mokie Dive Center.  It was late already and after the preliminaries and briefing from DM Opong, we geared up for our first descent at Baring Wall which is just nearby.  I guess our DM was too careful to bring along two more guides during our dive, just being safe for sure.  We went down to a sandy slope with scattered sea grasses at about  4 meters until we came to a wall filled with soft corals, hydroids, whips and crinoids.  As I look up, there were so much juveniles prying around, surrounding us as we swam. It was like that – so wide and blue, feeling weightless and floating surrounded by them. It was a grand sight and being in their midst felt surreal. The wall was literally covered with life, so vibrant and colorful.  There were enormous sea fans and varied soft corals.  The black triggers seemed a common sight in the area darting now and then before us.  Then as we passed a crevice, a flood of fish came over us obviously intimidated by our presence, in a sense we are intruding their abode. We sighted also giant groupers, damsels, chromis and wrasses.  We ended our dive after 44 minutes with my air still at 1200psi.

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This nudi was crawling fast perhaps looking for food!

After an hour of surface interval at the diveshop, we prepared for our last descent at the house reef almost 3:00 in the afternoon already. The weather was bit kinder,  it was still overcast though but the waters was warm enough for a relaxing dive. Our kind guide suggested for the house reef, we went shallower but we had lot of sightings more than I expected!  🙂

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Can you see the stonefish?

So our first stop was at the remnants of a wooden boat, it doesn’t look like a wreck anymore yet the fragments had an active fish life. Surprisingly, it has become an artificial shelter of many species. We found stonefish, stationery as always just waiting for prey, and juveniles silently wiggling endlessly. A herd of sweetlips came close, curiously watching me but maintaining its distance carefully. Anthias, damsels, chromis, wrasses, angels, banners, triggers, pilot fish, striped eels and lot more! Invertebrates also abound – at least five species of nudibranch, Christmas tree worms and shrimps.  I was glad to find a moray eel, out from its lair on the sand. Another curious critter, it didn’t budge as I got nearer for a photo! There was a giant batfish like a pup, followed us all the way through until we had our safety stop. It was our company silently watching us, so amusing! And as we are nearing our safety stop, we had our big surprise as we saw a giant lilac crown jelly (chepea chepea) floating before us.  So amazing, it was my first encounter after many years of diving, indeed there is always something new in every dive!

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This is dragonet with its pectoral & caudal fin opened as it flew away!

Lastly, during our safety stop preparing for ascent just below our boat, I found a dragonet on the sand! And opening its pectoral fins, went swimming or flying over a distance catching up with another one. Yes, a couple of dragonet near our boat, when this specie is hard to find in other places! 🙂  We ended our afternoon in the waters filled to the brim with our sightings.  After 53 minutes, I still had 1100psi and we had our deepest at 23.9 meters.

Treasures to Explore

Olango is worth another visit to discover more of its riches in the southern part and set foot on its vast tidal flats.  Its treasures lies both on the surface and its depths.

The island is a diverse coastal ecosystem consisting of extensive coralline sandflats, mangroves, seagrass beds, and offshore coral reefs. The island’s mangroves are most extensive in the Cebu province, and its offshore corals are home to scores of various marine species.

 It is a wildlife sanctuary and is one of the seven best-known flyways in the world for migrating birds. The 920-hectare Sanctuary is a haven for migratory birds from Siberia, Northern China, and Japan. These birds flock to the island seeking refuge from the winter climate of other countries and it supports the largest concentration of migratory birds found so far in the Philippines. There are 97 species of birds in Olango, 48 of which are migratory species, while the rest are resident birds of the island. The birds use Olango as a major refueling station as well as a wintering ground. The birds stop by the island on their southward journey to Australia and New Zealand and on their journey back to their nesting grounds. (from wikipedia)

Next time I must visit Olango around the months of July to November just in time for winter in the Northern Hemisphere so I could catch glimpse of birds resting in the reef flats!

Have you been to Olango Island or Mactan, Cebu for that matter?